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Achieving an ideal visitor experience with the ADROIT approach


Achieving an ideal visitor experience with the ADROIT approach

Close collaboration between architects, landscape architects, and exhibit designers can lead to better crafted experiences for users of the space.

By Alan Reed, FAIA, LEED AP | GWWO | January 8, 2024
Visitor lobby Port Canaveral
Achieving an Ideal Visitor Experience: The ADROIT Approach. Photo courtesy GWWO Architects

Through over 30 years of designing interpretive centers, I’ve found that the most significant experiences are created through a close collaboration between architects, landscape architects, and exhibit designers. Inherent in that process is incorporating the most logical visitor sequence. I use the acronym ADROIT when describing that sequence: Arrival, Decompression, Reception, Orientation, Interpretation, and Transformation.

What is the ADROIT Approach?


Arrival is the first impression of a place or site. Ideally, one sees their destination prior to parking or disembarking other forms of transportation. In doing so, the stress associated with trying to understand and navigate in an unfamiliar environment is minimized (see intuitive wayfinding).

Robinson Nature Center front flower and pond
Visitors to the Robinson Nature Center are immediately afforded a view of the center and a clear directional understanding as they enter the site and turn into the parking lot. Photo courtesy GWWO


Decompression is the journey between arrival and actually entering a building or site. This phase allows time to cleanse one’s mind of their trip or daily stresses and prepare for their visit. Effective decompression happens over a meaningful amount of time and distance and ideally incorporates some initial interpretation. Often, clients are conflicted about the idea of decompression and the need to accommodate the disabled or elderly. While these are important considerations, more often than not, solutions can be found without sacrificing the opportunity for decompression.


Reception is the formal entry to the resource and should be visible upon arrival. Reception may be as simple as a sign at a trailhead or park, or in the case of a building, a lobby, or welcome desk. If possible, this area should be operated by someone qualified to answer any questions one may have before their interpretive experience.

 Fort McHenry Visitor Center and Robinson Nature Center
Visitors at the Fort McHenry Visitor Center & Historic Shrine (right) are greeted by an experienced ranger, and the “Life of the Forest” exhibit at the Robinson Nature Center (left) takes visitors on a journey through a full year of change in the forest. Photos courtesy GWWO


Orientation provides visitors with an understanding of the opportunities available to help plan their visit. In the case of a natural site, orientation is typically limited to a map of trails and destinations, with information such as distances, terrain difficulty, etc. Conversely, in a large visitor center, orientation is often multifaceted, including maps, interactive touch screens, orientation films, and access to staff for specific questions. Regardless of the vehicle, proper orientation is critical to a comprehensive and enjoyable visit.


Interpretation overarches the entire visitor experience and should begin the moment one enters the site. It is accomplished through a variety of vehicles and venues that range from simple two-dimensional displays to interactive exhibits and 4D theater experiences. In the case of living history sites or museums, messages may be delivered via costumed interpreters or docents. The most effective interpretation includes a rich mix of strategies to reach the broadest possible audience.

Maps outside of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center
Maps outside of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center orient visitors to the site and provide opportunities for further interpretation along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Photo courtesy GWWO


Transformation is the ultimate goal of the visitor experience. Successful visitor and interpretive facilities do more than provide information; they touch people on many levels, allowing them to make personal connections to the subject matter and inspiring them to learn more. Imparting that knowledge and an appreciation of the resource(s) clearly and memorably is the key to transformation.

Visitor experiences are a significant component of lifelong learning and provide many opportunities to impact one’s life. To make that experience as enjoyable and stress-free as possible requires an ADROIT touch.

About the Author
Alan Reed is GWWO’s President and Design Principal. He is a regular speaker on topics related to interpretive center design, including contextual design, and in 2011 he was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows specifically in recognition of his work on interpretive center facilities nationwide.

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